League One play-off, 2nd leg Rotherham 3 Preston 1. Rotherham win 4-2 on aggregate
STEVE EVANS has always maintained it is a case of when, not if, new-look Rotherham United grace the Championship once more.
That delicious prospect for Millers fans is potentially just 90 minutes away after a coming-of-age night for the club, which joyously yielded a Wembley ticket and the possible rubber-stamping of a passport back to the second tier.
Their manager has never led a side out at the home of football, but he will get his chance on May 25 and, if the Millers find a way past Leyton Orient, Evans will enjoy a maiden voyage in the Championship.
On a night when several players from the previous Millers line-up to claim back-to-back promotions to the second level were in attendance, including Alan Lee, Guy Branston and Mike Pollitt, along with legendary managerial duo Ronnie Moore and John Breckin, the current line-up put themselves on the threshold of an identical achievement.
The Millers’ haul of 86 points in the regular season was two more than League One champions Doncaster Rovers managed in 2012-13, with a place at Wembley representing the minimum the club’s fans feel they have deserved this term.
It was hard to argue on the evidence of last night’s showing, orchestrated majestically by Ben Pringle, who set up two goals, with a number of his team-mates not too far behind.
Evans said his side had to be at their very best to beat Preston, managed by Simon Grayson, and they were in that vicinity for most of the proceedings last night, with a piece or two of luck also serving them well at junctures.
A sea of red and white greeted the Millers at the start of play and the tears at the final whistle were joyous ones with the Millers’ mission of returning to the Championship for the first time since 2004-05 firmly on track.
Evans pledged that his side would stay true to their attacking instincts and so they did with a two-goal blast inside 10 first-half minutes from Wes Thomas and Lee Frecklington turning the tables after Paul Gallagher’s 16th-minute goal. It was left to Kieran Agard to apply the coup de grace.
With the margin between these Roses combatants over three games in 2013-14 being the width of a cigarette paper, the odds were heavily stacked on an evenly-matched opening.
But in the event, the opposite ensued in an open, entertaining encounter not in keeping with the tense nature of play-off football, with classy midfielder Pringle taking a bow.
All this came after another code-breaker in Gallagher struck to put North End ahead, with his wickedly delivered free-kick evading everyone before nestling in the far corner.
The man who gave away the free-kick with a cheap challenge, Kari Arnason, almost redeemed himself within minutes following Pringle’s similarly expert delivery, with his point-blank header turned away by Declan Rudd.
It was a warning that was not heeded by a side who had looked flaky at the back on Saturday, with the Millers on terms on 24 minutes.
Scott Wiseman conceded the free-kick tamely, with Pringle’s wand of a left foot picking out the unmarked Thomas, whose header flew past Rudd.
It was the prelude to a dominant home spell with Preston’s indecisive defence emboldening the hosts, and Thomas fired over at full stretch following more magic from Pringle.
But the midfielder, the sole Millers player named in the League One Team of the Year, had his moment soon after when another inch-perfect cross was latched onto by Frecklington, whose powerful low header from distance flew past Rudd.
It was deserved reward for United, although they suffered a scare when Joe Garner fired over before goalkeeper Adam Collin almost gift-wrapped a leveller just before the break when he spilled John Welsh’s shot, only for the ball to thankfully drift wide.
Yet it was United’s half and they signalled their intent through a familiar source soon after the restart when Pringle’s sweet volley crashed against the woodwork after the visitors failed to clear Arnason’s long throw.
David Buchanan then fired wide before Gallagher, put in the shade by Pringle, set up Garner with a peach of a pass, but his meaty volley flew off target.
Gallagher was next to threaten, heading Chris Humphrey’s centre wide of the target.
The gradient of the mountain got a whole lot steeper on 67 minutes when Agard netted his 26th and most important strike of the campaign.
James Tavernier picked out the United top scorer and he side-footed home.
It was the cue for cries of ‘We’re going to Wembley’ from ecstatic home fans, although they might have been presumptuous had Jack King’s deflected shot crept in instead of hitting a post.
The fact it simply was not Preston’s night was reinforced 10 minutes from time when Garner’s deflected shot struck a post with Agard almost also adding a late fourth.
The only sour point was a delirious, yet hasty, pitch invasion before the end, but the fans were not to be denied at the final whistle.
Rotherham United: Collin; Tavernier, Morgan, Arnason, Skarz; Agard (O’Connor 90), Frecklington (Milsom 90), Smallwood, Pringle; Thomas (Vuckic 86), Revell. Unused substitutes: Shearer, Davis, Rowe, Hitchcock.
Preston North End: Rudd; Clarke, King, Wright, Wiseman (Humphrey 53), Welsh (Brownhill 68), Kilkenny, Gallagher (Beavon 77), Buchanan; K Davies, Garner. Unused substitutes: Stuckmann, Keane, Laird, Holmes.
Referee: K Stroud (Hants).